The cost of unpaid work: Do we narrow the research pipeline by making low-income students work for free?

For most of my life, I was a naïve rule-follower. I rarely questioned tradition or my participation in cultural norms. My participation in unpaid undergraduate internships included. Like many that I knew, I devoted nearly 20 hours of weekly work that guaranteed no benefits to my paltry savings account but only a few extra lines to my growing curriculum vita. I saw it as a short-term investment with long-term payoffs. Ultimately, the unpaid hours that I spent juggling classes, research, and peer counseling saved me thousands of dollars and limited the “off-time” between graduation and the start of my Ph.D. program to nine months.

Now, as a Ph.D. student, I make a profession of questioning the sanctity of norms. Naturally, I began to question my own practices as a graduate mentor, the tradition of undergraduate research, and, most importantly— the crux of this post— the ethics of expecting low-income students to engage in unpaid research opportunities. 

There are unquestionable benefits of undergraduate research. Undergraduates get to network and develop lasting relationships with graduate students and faculty. Involvement in the research process increases research self-efficacy (Adedokun, Bessenbacher, Parker, Kirkham, & Burgess, 2013), better studying practices, and intrinsic motivation to pursue challenging tasks (Miller, Rycek, & Friston, 2015). Significantly, the impact of undergraduate research is most pronounced in minority students (Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007), who are often left out of the research pipeline. An added bonus? Students become competitive applicants for Ph.D. programs while getting course credit for their research contributions!

A Ph.D. has become more desirable in a competitive world with highly specialized job markets. It doesn’t hurt that this training comes with a stipend, unlike a master’s degree, which often requires one to pay out-of-pocket. A doctorate degree also offers long-term economic advantages over a bachelor’s degree. The National Science Foundation (2015) notes a non-trivial boost in earnings: Ph.D. recipients receive a median annual salary that is 115% greater than those with only a Bachelor’s degree. This pay increase may offer the greatest advantage for low-income individuals, who reap fewer gains with a four-year college degree compared to high-income individuals with and without a degree (The State of Working America, 2012).

But getting a Ph.D. is an uphill battle for many low-income students. In some respects, admission into a graduate program can still be considered a class privilege. For one, only 3% of students from the bottom socioeconomic quintile attend top American universities. At lower-ranking institutions, they still comprise the minority at 16% (Carnevale & Rose, 2003). Second, although the number of graduate degrees awarded in the U.S. is growing, this trend is largely driven by those in the top 5% of the wealth distribution (Posselt & Grodsky, 2017). Being born into a high socioeconomic background has a huge impact on whether one will obtain a Ph.D. People who have a parent with a bachelor’s degree will get a Ph.D. at a higher rate than people who have parents with only some college experience or a high school degree (i.e., roughly 25% vs. 15%, respectively). Having at least one parent with an advanced degree has an effect almost double that (National Science Foundation, 2017).

Unsurprisingly, cost is a major deterrent in the pursuit of undergraduate education and beyond. The average student loan debt is a little over $37,000. With interest, a person might pay nearly $400 each month for a decade to cover this loan ( Although a number of free tuition programs have been established throughout the country, not everyone takes advantage or is aware of them (Jackson, 2014). Many low- and middle-income students pay for tuition out-of-pocket (Jackson, 2014; Smith, 2018).

The competitive edge that one gains from undergraduate research often overshadows the economic realities that many students face. Not everyone shares the privilege of working for free. This muddies the “course credit-as-compensation” argument. Is course credit really fair compensation? Since students pay for course credit via tuition, they are, in essence, paying to participate in extra-curricular laboratory research. And since they pay to work in labs for free, this leads to further financial losses. For a student living in Los Angeles, devoting ten hours a week to unpaid research accrues at least $1,325 in lost wages during the academic quarter (, 2019). That is one’s monthly share of rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in LA (Josephson, 2015).

Furthermore, the financial strain of unpaid work can produce what some researchers call “a scarcity mindset”, or downstream changes in behavior and cognition due limited resources (Shah, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2012). Having less forces low-income students to make daily trade-offs that wealthier students rarely have to consider (Shafir & Mullainathan, 2013). Should you quit your research position or take on another job to pay your bills? Should you use your free time to study or get a decent amount of sleep? The stress of constantly engaging in these trade-offs can reduce cognitive resources and lead to worse performance on tasks (Shah et al., 2012; Shah, Zhao, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2018). Poor performance runs the risk of losing a letter of recommendation and disappointing the research team, so the struggling student may work overtime to provide meaningful contributions. The overexertion, the anxiety, the lack of sleep, and the lack of resources accumulate. Trade-offs persists, sacrifices are made, and a cycle of scarcity barrels through the process of graduate school preparation.

Is working for free worth all this trouble?

Clearly, the answer is not an easy one. On the one hand, the career prospects that arise from scientific engagement are indisputable. Undergraduate research offers an opportunity to show persistence, gain new skills, and develop important relationships with more senior scholars. For minority students, it broadens the research pipeline (Russell et al., 2007). On the other hand, paid positions allow low-income students to participate in productive research opportunities and get a head start on their graduate careers without incurring additional financial losses.

I am not blind to my idealistic proposition. The money to pay undergraduates must come from somewhere. As a thought experiment, I ask myself if I would accept a pay cut to my already tight salary as a LA-based graduate student so I can broaden educational opportunities. The answer would be an easy, “Yes”, if I were not already making trade-offs of my own.

But the burden of solving this problem does not fall on the individual. It is a systemic problem. As inequality in this nation grows, graduate education will become harder to attain.

The solution requires a huge paradigm shift and supportive efforts from those in power. Until that day comes, I propose a few suggestions to level the playing field for all students: 

  • Flexhours: Not all research tasks require students to come into the lab at a set time. Data cleaning, script editing, inventory, filing, and literature reviews are some examples. Perhaps, you can explore the possibility of running experiments on the weekend.

  • Just Google it: In a few keystrokes, I was able to find some paid research opportunities for my research assistants. Two have successfully acquired research grants— $1,000 each— through the Global Food Initiative Fellowship. PROPS is a UCLA-based research program that specifically targets the underrepresented student demographic. Even better, it comes with a quarterly stipend. Try checking with your department to see if your school offers a similar program!

  • Talk: We should think about the power imbalance between us, who get paid to do research at UCLA, and our students, who may be paying anywhere from $13,000 to $40,000 annually to work in our labs. There are many topics, like financial issues, that our research assistants are unwilling to broach. Frank discussions about their rights (Naufel & Beike, 2013) could open space for rapport. When and if students do discuss these issues, it can be unproductive and invalidating to generalize specific experiences, given that every academic climate and everyone’s personal responsibilities are different. Genuinely listening to a student’s financial struggles can demonstrate that you are proactive about having a supportive work environment. Acknowledge that your research assistants are contributing very real time and financial commitments to your projects, and that you are equally invested in their personal well-being.

  • Limit volunteers: If you are like me and began questioning the ethics of unpaid research experience, limit the number of students you hire on a volunteer basis. That is, limit the number of students who work without compensation (i.e., money or course credit).

College is when most students develop an interest in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, unlike STEM which begins in early childhood (Russell et al., 2007). As such, the research opportunities that we, as graduate students and faculty, provide may be the most formative training ground for future psychology researchers. This is the time when students begin to seriously consider pursuing a Ph.D. Therefore, the work environments that we create can be an impetus for social change. Let us use our research to not only answer important questions about human psychology but be a platform to broaden the research pipeline for those underrepresented in the higher ranks of academia.


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